Physiology and Behavior Influence Lactation Efficiency in Northern Elephant Seals (Mirounga angustirostris)

The efficiency with which mothers convert acquired energy into milk is a key determinant of the magnitude of parental investment in mammals; however, the mech~isms underlying lactation efficiency are poorly understood. Investigations on northern elephant seals have shown lactation efficiency, measured as the proportion of total energy expenditure that goes to the pup as milk, increases with age. In a cross-sectional study the physiological and behavioral determinants of lactation efficiency were investigated in eight young and seven prime (older) elephant seals by conducting behavioral observations and collecting milk, blood, and tissue on days 3 and 22 of lactation. Milk composition, circulating fatty acid and triglyceride concentrations, and mammary and blubber lipoprotein lipase activity were determined. Prime females had significantly greater percent milk fat and circulating fatty acids on day 3 than did young females, but these differences disappeared by day 22. The ability for prime females to produce higher-energy milk early in lactation may allow them to increase lactation efficiency by increasing the rate of energy transfer. In addition, prime females spent significantly more time resting. A combination of reduced activity and more rapid energy delivery likely explains the increase in lactation efficiency with age found in a previous study.